The scene in Minsk, Belarus, earlier this month was like something out of the former Soviet Union. On Dec. 19, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest a blatantly fraudulent presidential election. According to figures produced by the regime, President Alexander Lukashenko - who has ruled the country since 1994 - won 80 per cent of the vote with an improbably high 90 per cent turnout. As the mass of people marched toward the parliament and Central Election Commission headquarters crying "Free Belarus!" I got the uncomfortable feeling that the evening was not going to end well.
And it didn't. A small group of individuals - possibly pro-regime provocateurs - started smashing the doors of the government buildings. Within minutes, hordes of truncheon-wielding riot police descended upon the crowd, meting out indiscriminate violence against helpless protesters, including women and the elderly. Hundreds of civil society activists, journalists and ordinary citizens were rounded up; most of the nine opposition presidential candidates were viciously beaten and arrested. An evening that had begun to resemble the fall of the Berlin Wall ended up more like Hungary, 1956.
This crackdown marks the tragic failure of a years-long engagement process spearheaded by the European Union. Enjoying a strategic location between three EU states and Russia, Belarus serves as a major route for the shipment of Russian oil and gas to the European continent. It's in this capacity as middleman that Mr. Lukashenko has been able to use his country as a bargaining chip between the West and Moscow.
The regime has faced sanctions from the U.S. and the EU, yet relations between the West and Belarus had recently begun to thaw. The EU lifted most of its sanctions in 2008 with an eye to bringing Belarus closer into the European fold, and last month offered the Lukashenko regime an aid package of $3.6-billion in exchange for a free and fair election. The President of Lithuania allegedly endorsed Mr. Lukashenko in a closed-door meeting with European officials, informing them that he would be a reliable buffer against Russian hegemony. And earlier this month, the U.S. praised the regime for signing an agreement to give up stockpiles of Soviet-era enriched uranium.
The European rapprochement toward Mr. Lukashenko was in response to the recent deterioration of relations between Belarus and Russia, the result of a dispute over a rise in tariffs on Russian-supplied gas. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev disparaged Mr. Lukashenko, and over the summer, Russian state-controlled television aired a critical documentary about him titled The Godfather. In light of Mr. Lukashenko's falling out with Moscow, the EU believed it could liberalize his regime with a series of enticements. But in the week before the election, the ever-wily Belarus leader made amends with the Kremlin, meeting Mr. Medvedev in Moscow, where it was announced Russia would scrap duties on all oil exports. With the Russians back in his corner, Mr. Lukashenko knew he would be able to act with utter impunity come election day.
In retrospect, the Western attempt to soften its approach toward Mr. Lukashenko in the hope that he might liberalize was foolish. He understands that introducing the democratic practices insisted upon by the West would mean the end of his regime. The election "reforms" he initiated several months ago - a relatively open campaign, a live presidential debate - were purely cosmetic. Thus the violent crackdown that Mr. Lukashenko brazenly executed before the eyes of more than a thousand Western election monitors and the international press corps.
As much as the events of Dec. 19 were a catastrophe for the Belarusian opposition, they were a humiliating rebuke to the West, which had naively invested so much in the promise of a legitimate election. I spoke to opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov in Minsk the day before he was beaten and detained. Further Western engagement with Alexander Lukashenko, he told me, would cause "extended agony" for the people of Belarus. The hopes of liberalizing the regime with carrots now in tatters, it is high past time the West heeds the call of Belarus's brave and embattled democrats.
James Kirchick is writer at large with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and a contributing editor to The New Republic.